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Economic Governance

Scrutinizing the Corporate Role in the Post-2015 Development Agenda

Lou Pingeot

As multinational corporations grow larger and increasingly powerful, they have become actors to be reckoned with in international policy debates on poverty eradication, development, the environment, and human rights. At a time when governments seem unable and unwilling to resolve pressing challenges in multilateral settings, business is positioning itself as an alternative solution that is more flexible and efficient, and less bureaucratic, than states. Corporations, governments, and various civil society organizations are promoting multi-stakeholder initiatives and public-private partnerships as innovative models to tackle global issues.

The World Economic Forum's report on the future of global governance, Global Redesign, posits that a globalized world is best managed by a coalition of multinational corporations, governments, and select civil society organizations. The report argues that countries are no longer “the overwhelmingly dominant actors on the world stage” and that “the time has come for a new stakeholder paradigm of international governance.” The World Economic Forum's vision includes a “public-private” United Nations (UN), in which certain specialized agencies would operate under joint state and non-state governance systems, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization through a “Global Food, Agriculture and Nutrition Redesign Initiative.” This model also assumes that some issues would be taken off the agenda of the UN system to be addressed by “plurilateral, often multistakeholder, coalitions of the willing and able.”

Similarly, the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, an initiative designed to “identify ways to overcome today's impasse in key economic, climate, trade, security, and other negotiations” and chaired by former World Trade Organization Director-General Pascal Lamy, proposes to establish a “C20–C30–C40 Coalition” made up of G20 countries, 30 companies, and 40 cities that would work together to “counteract climate change.” Although this “coalition of the working,” based on “inclusive minilateralism,” would report to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, it would not rely on binding commitments.

The trend toward an increased role of corporate actors in global governance through various models of multi-stakeholder initiatives is also reflected at the UN level. Already in 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development endorsed “the concept of voluntary, multi-stakeholder initiatives to facilitate andexpeditetherealizationof sustainabledevelopment goals and commitments.” Several such high-profile initiatives are currently under way, addressing issues ranging from women and children's health (“Every Woman, Every Child”) to sustainable energy (“Sustainable Energy for All”). This trend is supported by member states, as demonstrated by the resolutions of the UN General Assembly under the item “Towards global partnerships,” which invite governments to continue to support UN efforts to engage with the private sector.

Still, there are diverging views among governments, UN institutions, and civil society organizations about the legitimacy and effectiveness of the growing interaction between the UN and business actors. While some maintain that there is no alternative to this new model, others have raised concerns about the limits and risks associated with public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder initiatives. Some civil society groups argue that corporate influence at the UN diverts the organization from tackling the root causes of environmental, social, and economic problems and puts its credibility and legitimacy at risk.

Against this background, large multinational corporations are expected to play a growing role in and have expanding influence over the UN's post2015 development agenda, as indicated in a series of reports written by business organizations as well as UN documents.

The outcome document of the 2012 Rio+20 conference, titled The Future We Want, called for the creation of a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are meant to build upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, set to be reached by 2015) and to converge with the UN's post-2015 development agenda. The Future We Want also mandated the creation of an intergovernmental Open Working Group (OWG) to develop a proposal for the new goals, as well as the creation of an intergovernmental High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) to provide political leadership, guidance, and recommendations on sustainable development. Both bodies were established during 2013. (See Chapter 13.)

The UN is aiming to integrate the various “work streams” stemming from the post-MDG and post-Rio processes into a universal sustainable development agenda. In addition to the OWG and the HLPF, these include two initiatives by the UN Secretary-General. One is a High-Level Panel (HLP) established in July 2012 to advise on the global development framework beyond 2015, and the other is the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) launched in August 2012, which aims to help overcome the gap between technical research and policy making and is to work with UN agencies and other organizations. Business groups, and in particular large multinational corporations, have been particularly active in the HLP and the SDSN.*

Business also has a strong presence through the Global Compact, a voluntary corporate responsibility initiative at the UN launched by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In early 2011, the Compact created a new initiative with a select number of companies, the Global Compact LEAD, to implement the “Blueprint for Corporate Sustainability Leadership.” Of the current 55 members of LEAD, 11 are from the mining sector and the oil and gas industry, 4 are electric or other utility providers, while just 1 hails from the alternative energy sector. Further, a number of business associations are involved in the post-2015 consultations, including the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the World Economic Forum, the International Chamber of Commerce, and the International Organization of Employers.

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